WeChat, WePay, YouCan't
November 17, 2019 1:03 PM   Subscribe

Welcome to China. You Probably Can't Buy Anything, Though. As China-only apps like WeChat become the way to pay in China, visitors find themselves locked out of society. They can't buy snacks, water, taxi rides, or even get toilet paper in public toilets.
posted by w0mbat (81 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
 
And tech industry douchebags want the rest of the world to be like this.
posted by SansPoint at 1:12 PM on November 17, 2019 [69 favorites]


Mistakes feature for bug.
posted by PMdixon at 1:12 PM on November 17, 2019 [11 favorites]


"Just like we go to Japan to enjoy their culture, foreigners can experience Chinese culture by scanning codes,"

This is so meta-hilarious I don't even know where to begin.

I studied abroad in China in the mid-90s when there was only one ATM in the entire city of Shanghai from which I could withdraw money out of my American bank account. There were Visa and MasterCard stickers displayed at major retailers and international hotels but I quickly learned that these were completely separate from the rest of the world's banking system and you could only get a Chinese credit card that would work in China if you were Chinese. As a foreigner you just had to get used to carrying giant wads of cash (that could only be acquired at a single ATM) everywhere. That was annoying, and yet somehow it's been made even more annoying.
posted by soren_lorensen at 1:21 PM on November 17, 2019 [32 favorites]


One of the first things I thought of which isn't addressed in the article, is whether or not there is braille available for the blind to even know where to scan (or that scanning is needed). Of course, it would be Chinese Braille, so not terribly helpful to foreigners who can't read it, but I do wonder how things like this affect Chinese citizens with disabilities.
posted by acidnova at 1:25 PM on November 17, 2019 [4 favorites]


Someone is getting SO rich with their cut of all these transactions. And what an amazing marketing database they're building! They can get richer off that too.
posted by fritley at 2:13 PM on November 17, 2019 [9 favorites]


And tech industry douchebags want the whole world to be like this

Aren't they interested in as many people as possible using their products? I actually doubt they would want this to be the norm worldwide. It's just that in China they are not the ones running the show ...
posted by Green-eyed grenade at 2:43 PM on November 17, 2019 [2 favorites]


neat the way the state has de facto implemented the old communist rmb / yuan currency system again, with internal and external currencies. Of course, now with even more totalitarian control over every transaction in the economy. Stalin would have loved this shit.
posted by jenkinsEar at 2:48 PM on November 17, 2019 [21 favorites]


Someone is getting SO rich with their cut of all these transactions.

That someone today is Visa and Mastercard... credit card transactions in the US cost about 1% to 3% of the amount transacted, compared to just 0.6% of the amount transacted through WePay. That's one reason I've heard that China has leapfrogged the West for electronic payments, that they regulated the transaction fees payment processors can charge.

I am kind of sympathetic to the point of view that hey, China is surely large enough to support a domestic payments agency, why have all this money going overseas to foreign firms, and they can probably leapfrog some technologies (go straight to QR codes). I've always been impressed by how secure phone payments are - the card numbers are encrypted so the vendor doesn't know what it is and the system can support the use of "one time codes" that are only good for that one transaction - the current implementation of credit card payments relies almost entirely on trust - once a vendor has your CC number and it gets stolen, there's nothing really stopping anyone else from just adding more charges to the card, all Visa can do is ban them from the network. QR codes seem to be even more secure than that, as AFAIK the vendor doesn't even get any of your information at all, they just see the money come into their account. It's one reason adoption of it has been so quick.

Complaining that we can't use Visa in China would be equivalent to complaining we can't use WePay QR codes (in their eyes a clearly superior, cheaper and far more secure system) in the US for payments. They must be rolling their eyes at the idea that Visa and Mastercard are making a killing overcharging the world for such an outdated system. Both countries will accommodate tourists just as much as they need them. Domestic tourism in China is massive: when I was a tourist there, I felt that fewer than 1 in 100 tourists were international. We're a rounding error in the scheme of things, I'm not surprised we aren't being catered for.
posted by xdvesper at 2:56 PM on November 17, 2019 [57 favorites]


Now I understand what my wife was talking about when she said her 88-year-old mom can't even call a taxi any more. This new system has excluded a whole lot of old people.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:57 PM on November 17, 2019 [27 favorites]


Rare for tourists to be shut out entirely, though, but China isn't a closed economy the way most countries that have separate domestic and foreign currencies have been in the remembered past.
posted by wierdo at 2:59 PM on November 17, 2019


The western version of WeChat can do most of the login / security things that you need.

The payments issue is pretty trivial. ATMS all work with Western bank cards, so you can get cash. The only kind of merchants that don't take cash or western credit cards are also staffed by monolingual staff who can't sell you what you want. The airlines, airports, hotels and train operators all take Western credit cards; the foreign version of Didi does too (and Didi has basically superseded taxis for all purposes for foreign visitors and a lot of Chinese people too).

What you DO have to do is prepare - have cash in your bank account to get cash, have downloaded the Western version of WeChat and Didi before you get there, have arranged to autoforward your Gmail to a Yahoo or Hotmail account, etc.
posted by MattD at 3:04 PM on November 17, 2019 [26 favorites]


Can you imagine the positive leverage China could have, were they not totally authoritarian and evil...? Blows my mind they are missing this. Still, in that size of a population, you are going to have weirdness, but.

Now, they may be winning due to massive externalized costs, but, when you are winning, you don't need to be shitty...
posted by Windopaene at 3:10 PM on November 17, 2019 [5 favorites]


(I should say that there are a lot of hotels in China that have a solely domestic guest base - it wouldn't surprise me if they don't accept international cards for a room guarantee, but you'd find that out when you tried to book.)
posted by MattD at 3:22 PM on November 17, 2019


China’s Alipay Tour Pass Launches for International Visitors (It Actually Works!) - according to this post, it’s now possible to set up Alipay and possibly WeChat pay using foreign cards and bank accounts. Still limited but it’s quite a change.
posted by adrianhon at 3:23 PM on November 17, 2019 [3 favorites]


Can you imagine the positive leverage China could have, were they not totally authoritarian and evil...?

Their position has been that if they weren't authoritarian and evil, they would have been crushed by foreign ideas (capitalism) long ago
posted by Merus at 3:23 PM on November 17, 2019 [6 favorites]


That position is baloney. Try putting up a sign in Tiananmen Square about treatment of ethnic minorities or about political prisoners or about absence of elections. See how that goes.
posted by haiku warrior at 3:34 PM on November 17, 2019 [2 favorites]


China now gives a social score to all its citizens. And your score determines what you can buy and where you can go (by controlling what train/plane tickets you can purchase).

How do they do this? By controlling Alipay and WeChat Pay. (There's also an extensive surveillance system backed up with AI facial recognition).

Heaven help those poor minority groups in China, who are often entirely shut off from the electronic economy.

It is really a science fiction nightmare turned into reality.
posted by eye of newt at 3:35 PM on November 17, 2019 [46 favorites]


I've read that in the Early Modern period, virtually everyone in China would carry around a set of scales and scissors in order to cut precise amounts of silver in order to make payments. Much of the output from the giant silver mines in Peru and Bolivia ended up in China to feed the Chinese monetary system.

This feels like exactly the opposite of that.
posted by clawsoon at 3:54 PM on November 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


How the West Got China's Social Credit System Wrong

Useful further info about the social credit system
posted by knapah at 3:55 PM on November 17, 2019 [4 favorites]


"How the West Got China's Social Credit System Wrong"

Make sure to actually read that article. The examples it gives to disprove the Western view of it being dystopian system are even worse that I could imagine.

The primary mechanism of the Social Credit System are the nationwide blacklists and red lists....You might be unable to purchase high-speed train tickets, fly on an airplane, or send your kids to a private school. Over 13 million people were on the list as of March, according to state reports, and the government has prohibited more than 20 million plane tickets from being purchased.
posted by eye of newt at 4:07 PM on November 17, 2019 [19 favorites]


That position is baloney.

I agree that it is baloney, however the history of Western meddling within and outside of China is absolutely worth remembering.

It's also worth remembering the civil war that led up to the formation of the modern Chinese state, and the internal ructions that followed.

The ccp's preoccupation with control is a predictable outcome from all this. It's not right, morally or even necessarily factually. But it should be taken into account.
posted by smoke at 4:20 PM on November 17, 2019 [13 favorites]


The WeChat thing in China is insane - I was over there a couple times recently and it's amazing how utterly ubiquitous it is. Not only did I not meet a single person who didn't use it, I didn't meet anyone who didn't use pretty much all its functions, all the time. It really is the default thing, right when you meet someone, to scan them right away.

A funny story about that, though - I was in town for a tech show we were running and in our backstage area there was no coffee. So I asked around and it turns out there was an automatic smart coffee maker at the show that was demoing its hardware and was happy to donate a device for backstage use. Nice, right?

Turns out the coffee maker isn't really meant for office environments — that is to say, for free coffee. There was literally no way to make the coffee come out for free. You had to scan it and pay every time. They set the price at the lowest possible amount, 1 RMB or whatever, but even then the people who really wanted coffee — us foreigners — fundamentally couldn't use it because we can't have Chinese bank accounts, which means we can't link one to our WeChat, which means we can't pay for anything that way. So ultimately it was as impossible for us to have coffee as before!

Of course in reality we could just ask any of our local friends and colleagues there and they'd happily help us out, but I thought it was a funny situation.

In reading the above replies however I think it's important, with China perhaps more than many other countries, not to impose your idea of what's normal and what's healthy tech-wise onto them and theirs. "It's a very different culture" is an enormous understatement.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 4:35 PM on November 17, 2019 [20 favorites]


Interestingly, Air Canada now takes payment for flights with WeChat Pay and Alipay. I suspect it's not so much a matter of their customers not having credit cards, but more of the lower fees being better for Air Canada.
I wonder if other businesses in Vancouver are starting to suit.
The article sounds like overblown BS though, many foreigners still manage travel around China just fine.
posted by ssg at 4:40 PM on November 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


Alright, not here to forgive the social credit system or Alipay/WePay for actual sins, but one thing I DO want to point out is that it's absurdly easy to get a bank account in China, easier than almost anywhere else in the world. Now, that doesn't apply to all banks (rules and clerks vary) and in no way shape or form are you guaranteed an English-speaking clerk, but we're talking about China, so you probably weren't expecting that anyway. By "easy" I mean they ask you to bring your passport and fill out a form with your
- Chinese phone number
- address
- passport number
- some other information they don't glance at (or if they do you ask to see the manager and explain that that's not how this works, all the information you need is on the paper, stop trying to block me from account access on account of your stupid affiliate marketing program, the visa is valid, the phone number works, that's me on the passport, and this is a wad of actual cash in my hands, yes I'll wait right here while you confer with the poobahs in the back)

No proof of address, just write an address. No residency visa. They have your passport number and phone number, they know who and where you are. No background check. No minimum deposit. About $3 in fees for the card, activation fees, and other silliness. They hand you your Unionpay debit card right there. In theory, it takes 20 minutes. That gets you a basic deposit + "checking" account that's basically just a digital RMB wallet. You can transfer RMB to any other account without fees, receive RMB without fees, and so on. Functions beyond the very basic RMB deposit, withdrawal, pay, and transfer require vastly more paperwork and time. The account never expires or requires further verification unless your passport number or Chinese phone number changes, fees are in the cents per year.

From there (in theory), it's a simple, automated, 5-minute operation to link that bank card to Wechat or Alipay, once you register a Wechat or Alipay account under the same passport, which you also registered your Chinese phone number under (again, it's just passport+fees & balance, ~$20).

Your Day 1 agenda upon landing in China should be
1) China Mobile/China Unicom/China Telecom office, get a Chinese SIM & number.
2) Bank of China (or any other bank, they're all supposed to, variation comes from bank's internal rules), get a bank account
3) Link that bank account to your Wechat/Alipay
4) Withdraw a suitable amount of RMB from your foreign bank account and deposit. Top up as necessary, most if not all banks have automatic cash deposit machines open 24 hours a day.

ALL the difficulties in this process come from people who haven't or won't or don't know how to get that bank account & phone number. There are legit reasons not to. Outcomes vary depending on the clerk, bank, location, and patience/schedule of the person applying.

The system isn't designed to be exclusionary, it's just that like most things in China, they didn't really think about the edge cases.
posted by saysthis at 4:54 PM on November 17, 2019 [86 favorites]


Mashed post too early. Here's some perspective on the stuff I described above.

I also travel to Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Japan, and in none of those countries can someone without proof of income or proof of residence open a bank account, and from there access domestic payment networks. Indonesia in particular is goofy about this - GoPay and its competing e-wallet clones are not accepted universally, require top-up in person at physical locations, and my US ATM card doesn't work at every ATM, and where it does work, the maximum I can withdraw at a time is $200-ish in 100k IDR notes, their highest denomination (about $7), and that's even assuming I can find a 100k-note machine - most are 50k-note machines, so I'm getting at max about $100 + a $5 overseas withdrawal charge per time (lucky me, I have free international withdrawals at my bank, and I've had to call them a LOT to unfreeze my card after repeated withdrawals) in a country where the locals put nearly everything on various bank and credit cards (Indonesia is insane about loyalty programs, discounts for certain banks, points, etc.). Minimum spend for a fancy nightclub table is, oh...5 million rupiah. Nobody's walking in there with 50 100k notes, or 100 50k notes!

Thailand, Japan, and Hong Kong (those coins tho) get around the silliness with high-denomination banknotes. Cambodia outright uses USD. Vietnam is...the land of large wallets. China's approach is, so far, the only country I know of that allows tourists to actually access the domestic electronic payments network without residency papers or an impractical waiting period, and which charges almost no fees for the added convenience of e-pay.
posted by saysthis at 5:18 PM on November 17, 2019 [22 favorites]


We were at UBC in Vancouver this summer and there were tons of shops/cafes/etc on campus with Alipay decals in the window. UBC has a large Chinese international-student population though, so it probably makes a ton of sense.
posted by heatherlogan at 5:22 PM on November 17, 2019


FWIW I've used Alipay to buy shit from Aliexpress for years. It's trivial to fund it with a western Visa card. (It may "not be the same thing" but as far as I can tell it is.)
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:26 PM on November 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


One more then I'll go away (too much coffee!).

Now it's true that in China, the pay-with-your-phone madness presents difficulties for non-Chinese people, and it's true that the system has not been implemented in such a way that someone who doesn't speak Chinese can figure it out without headache (the whole reason I'm yammering about it here is I've given the speech a million times to a million tourists, the pain is real). Chinese people themselves often don't know all the regulations, they just get prompts in their apps, scan their ID, and go on with life. But you know why it got so popular so fast?

Scams. Back when "cash was king" in China, scams were rife. People used to say "bargaining is traditional in China"...lol @ face-saving excuse. No. Transparent pricing, reliable payment tracing, and consumer protection were HUGE unfilled needs in mainland China, and Alipay/Wechat stepped in to fill that void. Taxi drivers who wouldn't run the meter, counterfeit currency, the danger of robbery, trying to buy things at markets and not finding a price tag, undercounted change, "foreigner prices"/"out-of-towner prices", impossible-to-find offices to buy government services ("is this an official receipt?"), fake apartment rental deposit scams & surprise rent increases, the list goes on... Commerce in mainland China used to be uniquely toxic. It was cheap if you knew how, most of the time most people were honest, but it was exhausting to keep your guard up all the time.

Again, I don't want to forgive the social credit system or lack of anonymity in China, because those are used in creepy ways, but the change over the last 5 years, at least in my experience, has been astounding. Clear prices everywhere, no overcharging, and a huge reduction in panhandling (side note: if you see beggars in Tier 1 cities, do not give them money! That's organized crime, and they pay the police to be there), scammy products/establishments, and the circulation of fake cash. Bargaining is gone unless you go looking for it. Online scams are transparent and there's always a "report" button. Disputing charges is easy and refunds are nearly instant. Waiters have a much easier job and requests for tips are unheard of now. Armed robbery still happens, but it involves phone to phone transfers and it's much easier to prosecute.

It's hard to understate how fundamental that change has been. E-pay, plus Didi & other taxi apps (there are actually dozens), plus review sites like Dazhong Dianping, plus online supermarkets have fundamentally improved the day-to-day consumer experience in China, and given what it used to be, that's saying a lot.
posted by saysthis at 6:20 PM on November 17, 2019 [61 favorites]


I was caught out with this when transiting through a Chinese airport recently. It never occurred to me to download WeChat in advance (and I would have been reluctant to anyway). But EVERYTHING in the airport needed it. It was the only way to pay at most shops, and even the free recliner chairs had to be "unlocked" by scanning a code and entering your WeChat number or something. I couldn't even get online to download it because the free airport WIFI sent a code to your WeChat to let you on. It was really strange to me, and gave me a small sense of how frustrating life in China would be without it.
posted by lollusc at 6:27 PM on November 17, 2019 [3 favorites]


The WeChat thing in China is insane - I was over there a couple times recently and it's amazing how utterly ubiquitous it is. Not only did I not meet a single person who didn't use it, I didn't meet anyone who didn't use pretty much all its functions, all the time. It really is the default thing, right when you meet someone, to scan them right away.

Ah: Mark Zuckerberg's fever dream for Libra, perhaps?
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 6:30 PM on November 17, 2019 [3 favorites]


The primary mechanism of the Social Credit System are the nationwide blacklists and red lists....You might be unable to purchase high-speed train tickets, fly on an airplane, or send your kids to a private school. Over 13 million people were on the list as of March, according to state reports, and the government has prohibited more than 20 million plane tickets from being purchased.

13 million people sounds like a lot until I think that China has a population of 1.4 billion. That's a little more than 1% of the population who've found the system restricting their behaviour.

To compare, about 6% of Americans have a criminal record.
posted by Merus at 6:51 PM on November 17, 2019 [18 favorites]


"foreigner prices"/"out-of-towner prices"

In fairness, in the old days this was literally official policy. I was in Chinese as an exchange student back in the days when the Friendship Store was the only place that sold "Western" (for certain definitions of this word) food. Almost every member of our group got the old "give 100 yuan, get back 80 in counterfeit 20 yuan bills" scam. Some were scammed in far worse ways. Taxi drivers would drive you to the ass-end-of-nowhere and back to run up the meters.

The important thing to remember is that these changes are meant to benefit the state and Chinese people. Not to benefit foreigners or tourists of any sort, who are an afterthought at best, if they're a thought at all. Would I jump through all of those hoops to temporarily set up a bank account for the privilege of installing state spyware on my phone? Nah, I don't think so. I spent over an hour in a major bank branch in Guangzhou just trying to change some money back in 2016, and I lack confidence that the same branch could have figured out how to open an account for me. But this system isn't for me, there's no such thing as equal protection in China, and for the people it's been built to benefit, it's the best.
posted by 1adam12 at 6:57 PM on November 17, 2019


It’s really something to see people defending this system which is one more way that the Chinese government is using to extend its grip on its citizens.
posted by haiku warrior at 7:01 PM on November 17, 2019 [11 favorites]


"foreigner prices"/"out-of-towner prices"

In fairness, in the old days this was literally official policy.


I was gonna say, is this just a new way to charge me different for the same shit? Because that's a time honored tradition anyway. I'm old enough to remember the three-tiered admission fee to things: Chinese/foreign-born Chinese/non-Chinese foreigner. My student card got me around that most of the time but it definitely didn't work that way at the market. I'm surprised the solution here isn't "10 RMB via WePay... ooooor 15 cash."
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:15 PM on November 17, 2019 [1 favorite]


Their position has been that if they weren't authoritarian and evil, they would have been crushed by foreign ideas (capitalism) long ago

It's not as though we didn't recently see that same sentiment expressed in the Bolivia thread. Something something revolutions must be authoritarian in order to something something....neat how the ideals of freedom and liberty go right out the window when it's for people we support.

But my real takeaway is how pervasive and unexamined the ideals of colonialism are, even here. I mean the outrage here over the very idea that a country should be doing anything other than bending backwards to make things easy for US tourists! How dare they not be commoner integrated into the Western financial system!
posted by happyroach at 7:57 PM on November 17, 2019 [10 favorites]


It's not as though we didn't recently see that same sentiment expressed in the Bolivia thread. Something something revolutions must be authoritarian in order to something something....neat how the ideals of freedom and liberty go right out the window when it's for people we support.

Yeah, it's not a position I have a lot of sympathy for. I understand where they're coming from, but it's always struck me as not being able to articulate why your solution is any better. China's unquestionably a success story, but their defensiveness was unattractive as a developing country and dangerous as a powerful one.

It’s really something to see people defending this system which is one more way that the Chinese government is using to extend its grip on its citizens.

I wouldn't say I'm defending it so much as observing that in terms of coercion it doesn't strike me as being much more extreme than processes the West, particularly America, voluntarily implemented. China's a big country, and the various parts of its government often work at cross-purposes, so it's worth asking what parts, specifically, are the threat from a system like this. (For instance, I found out that the Sesame Credit system that was widely reported as being the core of the Social Credit system several years isn't part of it at all any more.)

A hypothetical system where people who volunteer and tidy up their community get preferential treatment when they take a well-earned holiday, or if they need to see the doctor, actually sounds pretty civilised. Why shouldn't the nice guys finish first, for once? I can't fault the intention, even though I know in reality that's not what China's social credit actually is, and that trying to implement such a system will run you afoul of the rule that measuring something changes what you're measuring.
posted by Merus at 8:40 PM on November 17, 2019 [2 favorites]


the government has prohibited more than 20 million plane tickets from being purchased.

It isn't of course analogous in 100% of cases but don't kid yourself that the West doesn't restrict it's populace in similar ways, the principal difference being that instead of a separate social credit score they use your back account balance. I'd wager there's a whole lot more than 20 million plane tickets that someone would have liked to purchase in the US but couldn't afford to. And if the reason they haven't been able to save up enough to do so is because of institutionalized discrimination, how is that so different from social credit?
posted by juv3nal at 9:07 PM on November 17, 2019 [7 favorites]



It’s really something to see people defending this system which is one more way that the Chinese government is using to extend its grip on its citizens.


I don't think people are defending it, so much as explicating why it exists, and why it's very popular with Chinese people. Sheesh the anglocentrism round here is off the hook sometimes.
posted by smoke at 9:17 PM on November 17, 2019 [22 favorites]


I don't think people are defending it, so much as explicating why it exists, and why it's very popular with Chinese people. Sheesh the anglocentrism round here is off the hook sometimes.

Or maybe, hey, China is not some remote place where people are "funny" anymore. They are real, just like you and me. They aren't "quaint, with their little ways." If anything, modern China is a horror that anticipates the devolution of the rest of the world into systems of control more terrible than Orwell imagined.
posted by SPrintF at 10:28 PM on November 17, 2019 [10 favorites]


A hypothetical system where people who volunteer and tidy up their community get preferential treatment when they take a well-earned holiday, or if they need to see the doctor, actually sounds pretty civilised.

It's barbaric. Authoritarian power structures are, in all sorts of contexts. Talking about holidays and medical access obscures the social and psychological ramifications of such forms of hegemony. They are known talking points.
posted by polymodus at 11:10 PM on November 17, 2019 [9 favorites]


It's barbaric. Authoritarian power structures are, in all sorts of contexts.

I would have said 'nice guys finish last' was the barbaric position, personally. Authoritarianism is not the only horrible way to organise a society
posted by Merus at 11:14 PM on November 17, 2019 [4 favorites]


It's barbaric. Authoritarian power structures are, in all sorts of contexts.

And yet hundreds of millions of nice, middle class Chinese people go along with it happily.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:49 PM on November 17, 2019


Or maybe, hey, China is not some remote place where people are "funny" anymore. They are real, just like you and me. They aren't "quaint, with their little ways."

I'm really confused; I don't see anyone in this thread saying anything like that? The only reduction I've seen happening is framing this around western needs, experience, and values.

This so bizarre, I'm not even a fan of the CCP!
posted by smoke at 12:05 AM on November 18, 2019 [4 favorites]


Of course, doing this means you have to install programs that root your phone for them. Then, whatever information involving your work; your employer, etc. can be intercepted by them. Your personal emails become blackmail, assuming you're important enough. Always a scam. For all the nasty, stupid, xenophobic claims they've run over the years, the American government giving pushback on Huawei was probably one of the only things they've ever been right about. Pervasive Chinese global surveillance and espionage is a tremendous threat. Don't get me wrong- Five Eyes isn't great for our civil liberties either, but at least they've yet to turn that one on us [to its fullest, horrible potential]. China is an aspiring, ascendant superpower, unafraid of genocide, devoted to a monolithic people united under a single demonym. As much as it sickens me that our own governments watch us, I can only imagine what the Chinese government will do when they get their hands on enough of our information for themselves.
posted by constantinescharity at 12:10 AM on November 18, 2019 [11 favorites]


I recently turned down a trip to China, in part because of Wechat-payment issues. And reading this thread has confirmed my feelings: You can’t buy anything! But maybe you can? Oh but first you need a SIM card? And don’t forget to get a prepaid card! Ugh, no. None of these things sound like something I can achieve after a 22 hour flight. I look forward to hearing how the rest of my department gets on for their 20-day visit.
posted by The River Ivel at 12:14 AM on November 18, 2019 [3 favorites]


It isn't of course analogous in 100% of cases but don't kid yourself that the West doesn't restrict it's populace in similar ways, the principal difference being that instead of a separate social credit score they use your back account balance. I'd wager there's a whole lot more than 20 million plane tickets that someone would have liked to purchase in the US but couldn't afford to. And if the reason they haven't been able to save up enough to do so is because of institutionalized discrimination, how is that so different from social credit?

This only makes sense if you assume cost is somehow magically not a barrier in China.
posted by kmz at 12:55 AM on November 18, 2019 [6 favorites]


This only makes sense if you assume cost is somehow magically not a barrier in China.

Just because cost also restricts what people can do in China on top of the social credit stuff does not somehow mean what people can do outside of China is somehow unrestricted.
posted by juv3nal at 1:04 AM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]


MartinWisse: "And yet hundreds of millions of nice, middle class Chinese people go along with it happily."

Not in Hong Kong.
posted by chavenet at 1:06 AM on November 18, 2019 [14 favorites]


I study at a large English university which has so many Chinese students that they've found it economic to install WeChat payment terminals at the students' union cafés and shops. They appear to be a camera on the counter - the app displays a QR code, the customer shows the QR code to the WeChat camera, the payment goes through.

I don't know much about the system, but it is operational outside of China in places where they're expecting Chinese customers. I've seen it at tourist attractions in England, too.

Whether I, as a British citizen, can get the WeChat app and link it to my bank account and confuse the students' union shop staff by paying with it while not being Chinese is another matter - I genuinely have no idea, £1.20 in cash works fine for buying a coffee for me.
posted by winterhill at 1:16 AM on November 18, 2019 [2 favorites]


I recently turned down a trip to China, in part because of Wechat-payment issues. And reading this thread has confirmed my feelings: You can’t buy anything! But maybe you can? Oh but first you need a SIM card? And don’t forget to get a prepaid card! Ugh, no. None of these things sound like something I can achieve after a 22 hour flight. I look forward to hearing how the rest of my department gets on for their 20-day visit.

Could any of this be resolved through the use of a burner phone?
posted by fairmettle at 1:18 AM on November 18, 2019


Just because cost also restricts what people can do in China on top of the social credit stuff does not somehow mean what people can do outside of China is somehow unrestricted.

Well, yeah. I'm just really confused because the cost barriers are basically the same on both sides, so I don't know why the social credit blacklist is also analogized to cost. If anything, the blacklist could be compared to the No Fly List, which has its own set of problems, but is more limited in scale.
posted by kmz at 1:19 AM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


Could any of this be resolved through the use of a burner phone?
Is there such a thing as a burner phone in China? In the UK, you can easily obtain a SIM card from any corner shop, or a cheap mobile phone from a shop with no ID requirement. Some (but a decreasing number) have a number attached to them and accept incoming calls without any payment required. I was surprised to learn that this isn't the case any more in most countries.

Quite often you see a pile of discarded SIM card wrappers in the street, presumably from someone who needs a multitude of phone numbers for some nefarious purpose. I don't understand why they haven't brought in some kind of ID requirement yet - most people need a couple of numbers at most, and keep them long-term. If you need ten SIM cards all at once, you're up to some kind of dodgy dealing.
posted by winterhill at 1:25 AM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


The anonymity of cash is vital in times of political upheaval, like we're experiencing right now in Hong Kong. I don't even like using my Octopus card, our transit/payment card system, even though it's anonymous and not tied to me or my address - some computer somewhere knows that the person who uses my Octopus card enters at station X and leaves at station Y and buys product Z, and I think it would be trivial to find out who that person is over years and years of transactions. Perhaps it's time to run down the value, 'lose' it and get a new one...

During the protests back in June, thousands of tickets and simply piles of cash were left on top of ticket machines for demonstrators to use to get home anonymously; for many Hongkongers, your Octopus card is also your entry key to your housing estate - and really, does anyone trust the property developers in this, the most expensive city in the world for housing? The police have used Octopus data to track down people they want to arrest in criminal cases as far back as, according to the linked article, 2010. People justifiably fear the paper trail and I don't know that many people here who use the Chinese payment apps in their Hong Kong incarnations. Local banks offer alternatives and really, cash is still king - today I watched some teenagers pay for two coffees costing about HKD 70 (~USD 9) with an HKD 1000 (~USD 128) banknote. The barista took it without a second glance.

Really, these days I feel like anything that happens in Mainland China and is officially and openly encouraged cannot possibly be happening for a reason that is something other than 'because the government wants it to happen'. These online payment systems, to me, are a part of this. Whether that's a concept which an institution or person outside China is willing to embrace affects my perceptions of how much they value my privacy, security and liberty.
posted by mdonley at 1:37 AM on November 18, 2019 [26 favorites]


I don't doubt that the Chinese state targets the phones of foreign nationals "assuming you're important enough"* but is this:

Of course, doing this means you have to install programs that root your phone for them.

Really the case in general? Surely, WeChat wouldn't be allowed on the app store if it could be shown to be doing this.

*As we do in the West too.
posted by Beware of the leopard at 2:32 AM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


Aren't they interested in as many people as possible using their products?

Yes, that's why nobody anywhere is unbanked, and tap-payment capable smartphones are available free of charge to all. Oh wait....
posted by Dysk at 2:53 AM on November 18, 2019 [3 favorites]


Sheesh the anglocentrism round here is off the hook sometimes.

Maybe some of us are connecting the dots between a payment system that gives authoritarian control and what's happening to the Uighur people in Xinjiang. History shows that a system like that doesn't stop with one group... so who will be the next group subjected to an even more efficient system?
posted by kokaku at 3:48 AM on November 18, 2019 [14 favorites]


. I mean the outrage here over the very idea that a country should be doing anything other than bending backwards to make things easy for US tourists! How dare they not be commoner integrated into the Western financial system!

I think the point, at least the one I was making (not a US tourist, by the way) was that if just visiting an airport briefly made me feel that powerless and disconnected from society, I can only imagine how impossible it must be for actual Chinese citizens who are locked out of the WeChat / wepay eco-system due to their political activity, ethnic backgrounds, disabilities or any of the many reasons China likes to disenfranchise people.
posted by lollusc at 3:57 AM on November 18, 2019 [10 favorites]


Colonialism is also the expectation that you can show up anywhere in the world on a whim and people will accommodate you. Capitalism is also the expectation that your money will be good (= the best) anywhere you go. Resistance against colonialism and capitalism will also reduce the freedoms you have enjoyed. It will reduce the leverage you take for granted, including those forms of leverage that involve righteous indignation at the barbaric practices of the natives.
posted by dmh at 4:44 AM on November 18, 2019 [6 favorites]


I'm flabbergasted at people arguing that this WeChat thing is no worse and no more restrictive than any payment systems in the West because MasterCard...?

You don't arrive in any anglophone country and realize that a credit card is the only way to pay for anything. You don't have to spend the first day in the country applying for credit cards and checking on your lines of credit and showing collateral and whatever the hell else. You still get to use cash which you conveniently obtain at the airport currency exchange counter.

It's not even for the benefit of tourists that concern is being expressed. China is excluding from its new commercial and public life anyone who can't buy a phone or anyone who can't work a phone. Developmentally disabled people, old people, poor people. It's excluding anyone who feels unsafe being tracked by this genocidal government: vast classes of politically incorrect persons.

Who is to stop the government from commandeering WeChat data to hunt down political opponents?

The same thing is happening in India too. You can't get a SIM card in India without ID. There is no such thing as a burner phone. Coupon books like SoDexHo were trying to replace real currency, and these days it's the banking apps, but thank goodness for the inherent chaos of India and its democracy that the government hasn't literally killed off the competitors in the name of market efficiency. But with the rise of authoritarian regime in India, who knows?

This isn't a case of anglophone fears of tourist inconvenience and anglophones being decentralized from the conversation, folks.
posted by MiraK at 4:50 AM on November 18, 2019 [16 favorites]


The only reduction I've seen happening is framing this around western needs, experience, and values.

Smoke, you're not reading very closely.

Now I understand what my wife was talking about when she said her 88-year-old mom can't even call a taxi any more. This new system has excluded a whole lot of old people. It's an 88-year-old Chinese native I'm talking about there. Nothing to do with Western needs, etc.

And

China is excluding from its new commercial and public life anyone who can't buy a phone or anyone who can't work a phone. Developmentally disabled people, old people, poor people. It's excluding anyone who feels unsafe being tracked by this genocidal government: vast classes of politically incorrect persons.

and

I can only imagine how impossible it must be for actual Chinese citizens who are locked out of the WeChat / wepay eco-system due to their political activity, ethnic backgrounds, disabilities or any of the many reasons China likes to disenfranchise people.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:02 AM on November 18, 2019 [10 favorites]


Just to add a random data point: I work for a company that manufactures electronic payment terminals. Some of our customers are the Veblen-class chain stores (think of Gucci or Coach or Tiffany)

They're complaining to us that our terminals don't handle WeChat/AliPay and they're losing business from wealthy Chinese travelers trying to load up on duty-free goods on the way home, since that's the only payment type they use. So we're scrambling to get that in place.

So I guess it goes both ways?
posted by JoeZydeco at 5:47 AM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


I feel like maybe we're having trouble holding parallel understandings in our heads a bit.

I mean:

Western people can be Eurocentric and stupid about China while at the same time the Chinese government can be authoritarian and scary.

Surveillance capitalism can offer real material benefits to its participants while at the same time excluding marginalized people and providing data to the state. In fact, that's how surveillance capitalism works - the real material benefits experienced by the majority keep people quiet and that's a lot cheaper than a policeman on every corner.

Chinese assumptions about the role of the state can be historically different than Western ones in a neutral way and also the current Chinese surveillance system can be bad and scary.

The Chinese government can, like the US government, pursue bad and authoritarian policies while also employing good and honest civil servants to do worthwhile things in other areas.

~~
I feel like conversations about China fall into a real either-or pattern - either China is not bad just different and therefore criticisms are naive and Eurocentric or China is this authoritarian monster populated entirely by dupes and bootlickers.

And there's another pattern, where if someone criticizes the Chinese government, we immediately move to point to an "equal and opposite" abuse in the US. Not only is this a bit ethically unsatisfactory, I feel like it's historically inadequate. Events happen in fits and starts, and they happen unevenly across countries and times. It's perfectly possible for one aspect of the Chinese system to be substantially worse than the analogous one in the US without this invalidating other, larger criticisms of the US.

I feel like it's fine and good to be in the habit of turning our criticisms of other countries around and using them to critically evaluate the US, but that does not in itself evacuate the critiques when applied to other countries.

~~
I mean, I think it's very difficult to both recognize real, deep historical differences and to maintain a political critique. As far as I can tell from having worked in China, reading Chinese history, etc, there are a lot of deep differences in assumptions about the role of the state between China and the US. China has had a large, complex bureaucracy for a really long time. There are all kinds of theories about the nature of good government that are very, um, foreign to the US but that seem natural, good and obvious to many Chinese people. Treating this as some kind of false consciousness and assuming that once China gets hip to US-style "democracy" they'll want to change overnight is weird and Eurocentric.

But then there are things like "oh, everyone looooooves to bargain in China, it's traditional, only foreigners mind" that were truisms when I worked there, but it turns out that whoa, transparent and consistent pricing a la the US supermarket is actually pretty popular! There were plenty of truisims about "Chinese characteristics" that I learned as a foreigner - some from Chinese people and some from Westerners - that history has shown to be total nonsense.

So on the one hand there really are deep-rooted differences in culture and philosophy between China and most Western countries, but on the other hand there are a lot of things that get fetishized as differences that are really just bubbles in the timestream, so to speak.

It's tricky. I suppose that detailed historical analysis is the only way to resolve some of this stuff.
posted by Frowner at 5:48 AM on November 18, 2019 [59 favorites]


I'm flabbergasted at people arguing that this WeChat thing is no worse and no more restrictive than any payment systems in the West because MasterCard...?

You don't arrive in any anglophone country and realize that a credit card is the only way to pay for anything. You don't have to spend the first day in the country applying for credit cards and checking on your lines of credit and showing collateral and whatever the hell else. You still get to use cash which you conveniently obtain at the airport currency exchange counter.


Yes and no. The hurdles for your hypothetical Chinese tourist vacationing in America are just as cumbersome as what's being described upthread. Think about it: your de facto currency system doesn't work anywhere, so you have to have planned ahead and gotten a credit/debit card from your bank back home (which you never access via anything but WeChat) before you hopped on the plane. If you forget to do that, you're utterly hosed--you won't be able to open an American bank account without showing proof of residency, which you don't have. Your only real option is to withdraw large amounts of cash from your bank account, then convert it to USD at the airport. Your access to the American economy will then mostly work, but your daily experiences will have big holes if you don't have a Visa. Cabs might take cash, but Uber won't, and you can't sign up for an Uber account without a smart phone that works on the American cell network and a major American credit card. The hotel might take cash, but you're going to get a lot of weird looks if you pay for your 7-day hotel stay with a stack of $20s. You can probably get around most of the inconvenience by buying prepaid debit cards, but that will ALSO raise eyebrows, and now we're right back where we started: you're dealing in large amounts of cash to get around weird-to-you financial rules, and exposing yourself to more opportunities for theft or fraud.

The government surveillance aspect is a totally different thing, but the jump from the Chinese economy to the American one is a huge hassle no matter which direction you're going.
posted by Mayor West at 6:15 AM on November 18, 2019 [7 favorites]


Another person living in England who knows a number of Chinese people. A friend did a presentation on how less than 10% of transactions in Beijing are cash transactions - everyone just uses WeChat. He was surprised and astounded when he came here and there was no WeChat or equivalent. He's struggled because he has never had to carry around cash.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 7:21 AM on November 18, 2019


To add to Frowner's excellent comment: yes, China is using WeChat to circumvent credit card networks that would only enrich western oligarchs in favor of money channels that China controls completely, so it keeps profits in-house. This is both a rightful and truly justified undercutting of western hegemony over the movement of money... AND a deeply horrific turn of events given the Chinese government's propensity towards casual genocide, unprecedented human rights violations, etc.

I guess that's what it's boiling down to for me, that's what tips the scales toward horror more than anything else. This superpower's atrocities are on level with the worst atrocities ever committed by humans, all packed into just this one perpetrator over the past twenty-ish years, on a scale hitherto unknown to humankind.

- Not even Belgium at the height of its colonial genocides built "reeducation" centers that targeted women in particular for sexual torture, harvesting human babies, and forcible sterilization through inhuman techniques .

- Not even Nestle builds human organ farms for harvesting organs from living, nonconsenting "donors".

And that's just the information that has leaked out. The Chinese government keeps most everything under wraps... For instance, the status of sweatshop laborers in its factories. The Economist did a harrowing expose of a brick factory near Xian about 15 years ago, and described hundreds of workers held captive indoors for years on end, forced to work 20 hours a day, never allowed to bathe... one man whose dental examination showed he was probably in his fifties could not remember his own name, and one young woman who had worked in the factory since she was a child hardly knew how to speak. The factory turned human beings into beasts. You think it's the only one?

And what about the One Child Policy generation which is just coming of age now and finding that they are all men? We have studies by NGOs and activists working all over northern India which has the same gender skew issue, and they report horrific statistics in how gangs and businesses in the most heavily skewed areas traffic women from other parts of the country for sexual, reproductive, domestic, and farm slavery. We hear not a peep from China, however. Are we to believe there is no problem there beyond what drips and snatches we get wind of?

When Soviet Russia was behind the iron curtain, it was hiding Gulags that murdered tens of millions of people in secret. What is China hiding behind its wall? Every indication we have says it's a lot of things that are a lot worse than the Gulags.

So, while I'm sympathetic to the impulse within you all that leads you to talk about how America is no saint and Anglophone countries have their share of oppressions perpetrated, I think there comes a point when making those statements is more in the interests of y'all trying to appear woke at the expense of erasing the actual scale of atrocities here. The Chinese government is not a joke. Please let's stop making false equivalencies between China's actions and, like, Visa or MasterCard.
posted by MiraK at 7:45 AM on November 18, 2019 [28 favorites]




To me the biggest horrifying side of this is a situation like in The Handsmaid's Tale (at least in the book) - with that level of government control, there is nothing stopping a regime from taking away all your money, or all the money of your ethnic group, or other set of distinctions, and suddenly you literally can't have any control of your life trajectory from that moment on, while they don't even have to show up at your door.
posted by Mchelly at 8:33 AM on November 18, 2019 [7 favorites]


I wonder how many China apologists would be happy if suddenly certain ethnic groups and all Trump critics were cut off from buying any good or service, restricted to certain housing, and forbidden from travel in the US?
posted by FakeFreyja at 9:22 AM on November 18, 2019 [3 favorites]


"2) Bank of China (or any other bank, they're all supposed to, variation comes from bank's internal rules), get a bank account"

saysthis, You say that like it's easy! At least in my experience, circa 2015, it wasn't easy at all. Maybe if I spoke putonghua, or was just luckier?

My solution was to stay in an AirBNB, and go with my host to an ATM where I withdrew RMB using my US bank card, gave it to him, and he sent me money in WeChat that I could then spend. Presumably he later deposited the cash. My most recent couple of trips have involved a similar exercise with people I know better than an arbitrary AirBNB host.

The point is that getting money into your WePay account doesn't have to happen via "linked bank account," and once it's there, it spends just like anybody else's.
posted by pwinn at 9:26 AM on November 18, 2019 [3 favorites]


Five Eyes isn't great for our civil liberties either, but at least they've yet to turn that one on us [to its fullest, horrible potential].

Oh they have, you must be part of the mainstream dominant culture
posted by Mrs Potato at 10:56 AM on November 18, 2019 [3 favorites]


Obviously a big problem with talking about the Chinese government in the West is that a lot of the criticism is cynical - the Wall Street Journal, NBC, etc really don't care about actual abuses, they care about creating a propaganda narrative about China as an enemy power. (Just as they don't write about abuses committed by the US or by American allies, and they don't question our firm ties to, eg, Saudi Arabia.) Not only does this make it difficult to know what accounts to trust, but it also saps some political will on the subject.

And of course this filters down to "China, where foreigners can't buy anything" - it's hard to parse just how true that story is. Presumably not outright lies, but is it as bad as the story claims? Maybe it is! Maybe the story is exaggerated to make China seem weird and insular! With cynical propaganda-based reporting in this country, who can tell without doing a lot of other research?
posted by Frowner at 11:29 AM on November 18, 2019 [6 favorites]


I just need to repeat that it is not the case that someone going to China cannot function without Alipay or (local and payment enabled) WeChat.

The article's anecdotes were all fringe cases that apply to pretty much no business traveler or ordinary (in China = package tour) tourist.

Foreign credit cards, or cash, are widely accepted anywhere a business travel or package tourist is likely to go or by the means they are likely to go. ATMs that work with foreign accounts to produce such cash are ubiquitous.
posted by MattD at 11:32 AM on November 18, 2019 [4 favorites]


And of course this filters down to "China, where foreigners can't buy anything" - it's hard to parse just how true that story is. Presumably not outright lies, but is it as bad as the story claims? Maybe it is! Maybe the story is exaggerated to make China seem weird and insular! With cynical propaganda-based reporting in this country, who can tell without doing a lot of other research?

FWIW, I was in Shanghai two years ago and was able to navigate most transactions using cash, although there were generally special registers for it, and this was true for stores ranging from a children's indoor play area, a specialty imported food grocery store, a bigger supermarket, a bakery, souvenir shops, Yu Gardens, restaurants and so on and so forth. Taxis accepted cash just fine. And it's not like my Chinese was really great. I will also say I was able to get WiFi at Pudong International in exchange for a scan of my passport, so I didn't have to use WeChat, but, you know, it wasn't like my favorite thing either.

I will also say that when I was in China ~20 years ago, everything was cash and everything was much more scammy (Oh look, how did this 20 rupee note get in your change how mysterious/oh, I certainly don't have enough small bills to give you enough change sorry -- it was exhausting).
posted by Comrade_robot at 12:34 PM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


I feel like conversations about China fall into a real either-or pattern
It's tricky. I suppose that detailed historical analysis is the only way to resolve some of this stuff.

Yes, I deeply agree.

As someone who is Asian but not Chinese (am Korean), it's quite honestly hard to have conversations about China in white or non-Asian spaces, because legitimate and pressing conversations and human rights issues about the Chinese government are often amplified by orientalism, racism, and othering. Alternately, this approach is also viewed through a kind of colonial justice / colonial feminist mindset: "white men are saving brown women from brown men"

If the criticism is technically correct, but arrived through a wrong or racist understanding of China, it's not very good or helpful.

One of the classic ways in which this manifests is a kind of head-shakey "oh you know, things are so weird and fucked-up in China, can you believe it???" position. When I see someone say this, I realize that China is not a real place with real problems, it's kind of a fantasyland.

So as a result, what happens is the desire to push back against the racism part -- the "your culture isn't so peachy keen either, get your condescending colonial justice out of here", which can then inadvertently paint China as a totally healthy place in which everything is fine.

(Also, just because someone worked or lived in China doesn't make them exempt from this dynamic; like I've written before, sometimes expats can be especially racist because they feel like they 'know' a place and 'deserve' to say anything.)

Obviously a balance is good. But it's difficult, especially when this dynamic itself is new or foreign to people talking about China. With my asian/asian-american friends, I can bring this up and they know exactly and immediately what I'm talking about without me having to write a few paragraphs about it...

Or, everything I said, better phrased in tweet form.
posted by suedehead at 12:47 PM on November 18, 2019 [19 favorites]


"2) Bank of China (or any other bank, they're all supposed to, variation comes from bank's internal rules), get a bank account"

saysthis, You say that like it's easy! At least in my experience, circa 2015, it wasn't easy at all. Maybe if I spoke putonghua, or was just luckier?

My solution was to stay in an AirBNB, and go with my host to an ATM where I withdrew RMB using my US bank card, gave it to him, and he sent me money in WeChat that I could then spend. Presumably he later deposited the cash. My most recent couple of trips have involved a similar exercise with people I know better than an arbitrary AirBNB host.

The point is that getting money into your WePay account doesn't have to happen via "linked bank account," and once it's there, it spends just like anybody else's.
posted by pwinn at 1:26 AM on November 19 [2 favorites −] Favorite added! [!]


Circa 2015 that was possible, because Wechat allowed limited wallet functionality without an ID back then. Since, updated currency exchange rules and online ID requirements have squashed that. Everything you do requires an ID now, and your phone number & bank account are the levers.

That ~140 million tourists visit China a year should reinvigorate your faith in human nature. People survive in China because people in general are generous, trusting, and inventive. When anything becomes popular or makes life easier, the state attaches to it like a lamprey and coopts it or bans it. Wechat & Alipay were not government initiatives. The new state security laws in 2017 were passed largely in response to the success of these two non-government platforms and companies like Huawei and Xiaomi.

I don't care if you have a surveillance dystopia or a capitalist paradise - "Maybe if I spoke putonghua, or was just luckier" - when people say this, the system is failing.

This is what the article is about. acidnova's comment about access for the blind? Take that seriously. QR code payment is a deeply ablist way of doing things; it requires functioning eyes, the money to pay for a smartphone, regular access to electricity to pay for it, the dexterity to operate it, literacy (in Chinese ffs!). It's a lot to ask, and Wechat/Alipay have nothing to say about what their products are doing to vulnerable populations, the ones their government partner is supposed to be serving. Well guys? I know you're reading this, what about it?

The same goes for this - "Elena Shortes, a 20-year-old college student who spent the summer studying in Beijing and Dalian, said she had to find a Chinese friend every time she did laundry, because the washers and dryers in the dorm designed for foreign students only accepted WeChat Pay." If you have to ask your friends every time you do laundry, and your school doesn't explain to you how to remedy that situation, that's a systemic failure. There wasn't a student advisor? A bank clerk? Some kind cleaning staff at the laundry center? A Wechat help hotline? No one?????

These are examples of how the Chinese state regularly fails people, and they are exactly the kind of issues where pressure from non-government actors can produce positive change. You, sir or madam, are a non-government actor. People should never say, "Oh but it's China, what do you expect from them?" Well, for one, I expect the world's second largest economy and largest country by population (China, you literally have the most brains) to do better than this.

Surveillance dystopia gonna surveillance dystopia, but they don't have to be jerks about it. Singapore manages to do a pretty nice job of being a hellish one-party surveillance dystopia too, y'know? They have wheelchair access and free healthcare and multiculturalism and stuff. It is not Western cultural imperialism to want to wipe your ass without scanning a code. Chinese culture is not creepy surveillance capitalism and big data algorithms. Everybody loses when the debate goes there while we're talking about how to do laundry, buy a beer, or pay your water bill. Two massive, competent tech companies (Alibaba and Tencent) in a hugely successful economy, and Chinese financial regulators, are the three inflection points for this issue, and with no qualification other than being a person on the internet, you, yes you, are granted full impunity by me to shit on them for building a platform that excludes people who reasonably want to participate through sheer neglect and stupidity.

I just need to repeat that it is not the case that someone going to China cannot function without Alipay or (local and payment enabled) WeChat.

Truth.

The article's anecdotes were all fringe cases that apply to pretty much no business traveler or ordinary (in China = package tour) tourist.

Business traveler, true. Package tour? NOPE. I live in Tourist Central in Beijing, and I never see foreign tour groups. I see lots of lost-looking individual travelers who ask me for help. I also meet lots of would-be entrepreneurs, English teachers, exchange students, family members of Chinese people who didn't grow up there and don't speak the language, boyfriends/girlfriends/children/spouses of these people, etc. All of them go through a period bashing their head against the Wechat Wall. It's real. People get sick of paying the fees and not being able to buy things on Taobao or get train tickets without lining up at the train station. Yes, package tours do take care of stuff like that for you, but why should that be a thing you have to pay for at all? Like, the infrastructure and machines are right there, and the train station and subways and supermarkets all have staff on hand to funnel people toward the machines and teach you how to use the shiny new apps, but not a single one of them knows what to do with a passport vs. a mainland 2nd-gen ID card, and the police have my passport details and biometrics and facial ID stuff, and it's been 5 years since you invented the tech already, come the fuck on, do better China, you obviously have the manpower infrastructure and budget, do it already.

Foreign credit cards, or cash, are widely accepted anywhere a business travel or package tourist is likely to go or by the means they are likely to go. ATMs that work with foreign accounts to produce such cash are ubiquitous.

Truth. The Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking Debit Card has an intimidating-sounding name, but I can tell you, as a transient schlub/damn dirty hippie who should get a job and a haircut, pretty much anyone American qualifies, and it's a nifty little card with no-fee international ATM withdrawals and no minimum balance and market-rate currency exchange. Chinese peeps be all like "Yo I can use Wechat internationally" and I'm like "lol check ur fees bro" and then they're all like :( and then I triumphantly gruffle a Big Mac and pay too much for insulin because America Fuck Yeah or something so get one before you travel, it's nice to have.

So the problem isn't that tourists can't access touristy things, nor is it that solutions don't exist, it's that a few specific unaccountable bureaucracies are producing stupid outcomes for a lot of people, some of whom are inconvenienced, others of whom are outright disincluded from economic life, and the only way they're going to do better is if we get knowledgeable about specifics of the money system that does so, call it what it is, and make a fuss about it. Ethnicity, nationality, colonialism, and imperialism have jack-all to do with that, and calling it a creepy surveillance state isn't about to change minds or make it easier for people who live/work/travel in China (here's the actual dystopia thread), and saying that the status quo is fine and you can't change it because China isn't a solution. So.

China is where 20% of the world's population lives, it's where half the world's stuff is made, and it's where a lot of the future is being trialed. It's not going away. We'll never get a better China than the one we've got if we don't even ask for it.
posted by saysthis at 3:45 PM on November 18, 2019 [17 favorites]


So the problem isn't that tourists can't access touristy things, nor is it that solutions don't exist, it's that a few specific unaccountable bureaucracies are producing stupid outcomes for a lot of people

The question then is why does this happen. It's a stupid outcome, but I don't think most of us have any idea how we ended up here. Having travelled in China, "because China" and that no one really has to care about this as it doesn't hurt any of the people who could actually change it are pretty much my level of understanding. So, how did this situation come to be and what's the pathway to actually fix it?
posted by ssg at 5:58 PM on November 18, 2019 [1 favorite]


It happens a lot in Africa as well, for digital mobile services & apps. Its lack of applying the basic user centered design process with upfront user research in context and conditions that is being evidenced here, per saysthis' framing above.
posted by Mrs Potato at 12:26 AM on November 19, 2019 [1 favorite]


This article precedes the one linked in the FPP by a few days, but it looks like there's a solution already available or being worked on: Travelers to China can finally experience its cashless economy like a local (Quartz)
posted by lesser weasel at 9:11 PM on November 25, 2019


(On a third preview, I seem to have missed a link above regarding the Tour Pass option)
posted by lesser weasel at 9:16 PM on November 25, 2019


Coincidentally, I just saw this article about Via Rail in Canada refusing cash payment for food going forward. If you don't have the credit rating to get a credit card, no train food for you.
posted by clawsoon at 8:37 AM on December 1, 2019


Coincidentally, I just saw this article about Via Rail in Canada refusing cash payment for food going forward. If you don't have the credit rating to get a credit card, no train food for you.
posted by clawsoon at 12:37 AM on December 2 [+] [!]

The question then is why does this happen. It's a stupid outcome, but I don't think most of us have any idea how we ended up here. Having travelled in China, "because China" and that no one really has to care about this as it doesn't hurt any of the people who could actually change it are pretty much my level of understanding. So, how did this situation come to be and what's the pathway to actually fix it?


I'm on break so I came back here and found exactly the thing I typed a really long comment about in the juxtaposition between these two comments.

You do something about it by making a stink about access where you are. China keeps sucking about electronic payment and surveillance in obvious ways. You help China by doing better where you are, succeeding, leaving an obvious example to follow, and complaining loudly all the while. Access access access.

In all my years here, it continues to astound me that they can build a system that allows tourists to get a bank account, they can start out with the best intentions (which are also coopted and creepy af), they can implement exactly those intentions, and then they can continue to operate for years, decades sometimes, while assuming those original intentions are still valid, because they lack an important thing - feedback. Give. Them. Feedback. That's how you help. You'll notice you can't exactly write them an email? Yah. That's why and what you talk about to anyone who listens. Prove that honest feedback is an invaluable mechanism for making stuff work, and that's how you get a better China.
posted by saysthis at 2:34 PM on December 4, 2019


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